Caitlyn Jenner, former Olympic champion, current reality TV star and symbol of America’s shifting sense of gender, spoke Thursday at the Hilton Chicago.
“What I have learned in the past six months,” said Jenner, referring to Diane Sawyer’s profile of her on ABC in April and her debut on the cover of Vanity Fair in July, “is how many good people are in this community … it’s really been overwhelming.”
Jenner’s appearance was her first since receiving the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs in July. The luncheon was to benefit Chicago House, a residence for transgender people in Edgewater, and the TransLife Center, its program offering social services and job placement.
Some 700,000 Americans are thought to be transgender, or about 0.2 percent of the U.S. population. Though they face intense discrimination and violence and their unemployment rate is double the national average, public attention in recent months has focused not on their struggles but on debates within school districts about where transgender teens should change for gym and which restrooms they should use — issues Jenner avoided.
Instead, she insisted she is not a spokesperson for the community. “No. I’m a spokesperson for my story. It’s the only thing I can tell. It’s the only thing I know.” That said, she hopes others will follow. “Open up this conversation. We can talk about this. It’s part of society. It’s part of humanity.”
Jenner has dealt with this since she was a young boy in Tarrytown, New York.
“I want people to know this story didn’t just happen,” she said. “For me, it’s been a lifetime. When I was a child, 8 or 9 years old, I used to sneak into my mom’s closet, cross-dress when they weren’t around.”
Sports, to that boy, “was my place to hide.”
After winning the decathlon in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Jenner plunged into a job as a TV announcer, embraced his celebrity lifestyle, all the while keeping “this woman living inside” of him hidden from a public that idolized him as a hero. She said that in the mid-1980s the New York Times was preparing a story about Jenner being a cross-dresser, but that her PR team managed to pressure the newspaper to abandon it.
She was received with a standing ovation by the audience of 1,000, although some transgender women in attendance grumbled that Jenner, for all her talk of giving back, took an honorarium, which Chicago House confirmed. It would not verify the amount, said to be $50,000. The event raised $250,000.
“I have never had one negative comment in six months,” she said. “As long as I don’t go online. What a mess.”
Indeed, tweeting Jenner’s remarks drew a howling chorus either insisting she is still a man (like most transgender women, Jenner has not had gender reassignment surgery) or bringing up a fatal traffic accident she was involved in earlier this year.
Listening to Jenner speak, I tried to gauge my own reaction. She did not seem as aware as she should be that she is the beneficiary much more than the instigator of these changes in society. Plus, well, it wasn’t so much that Bruce Jenner is now a woman, but a woman with lots of plastic surgery, with that pinched, vulpine, Joan Rivers face. One of the cultural conundrums of this transgender moment is that they’re embracing a mode of femininity that could be viewed as outmoded, as a man’s view of what being a woman means, one that many other women reject as superficial. Is a small nose and big breasts really necessary to be a woman? Many don’t think so, but Jenner obviously does, and given her role in “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” that can’t come as a shock.
Or is that carping? Contempt for the media peppered Jenner’s talk, and given past experience with paparazzi, who “made her life hell,” perhaps she earned that right.
For those confused by all this — sometimes me, sometimes even Jenner, who, listing her privileges, began a sentence, “I am a white guy …” then caught herself, adding, “was” then admitting “I can even mess up.” — what’s happening here should be laid out. The realm of people who get to play on the playground, unharassed, is expanding. Women got onto the playground, then blacks, then gays, and now transgender students can swing on the swings without fear of being beaten up, at least in theory. The rest, as Hillel said, is commentary.
For anyone still under the illusion that this is still a marginal group, the event was sponsored by BMO-Harris Bank, Walgreens, Pepsico, Aon, the Chicago Community Trust, the Chicago Sun-Times Trust, among other gilt-edged organizations.